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West Virginia’s New River Gorge is among the predominant climbing destinations in the Eastern United States. There are over 3,000 established routes along 60 miles of cliffline on the hardened Nuttall Sandstone of the New. Routes there are characterized by spread out holds and spread out bolts. The New has been considered a world-class climbing destination for decades, and has now received national park and preserve Status. The designation comes—surprisingly—as a component of the omnibus COVID relief stimulus package, signed in late 2020.
The New River has been designated as a National River since 1978, meaning only the river itself was protected by the National Parks Service. With its new designation as a Park and Preserve, 7,201 acres immediately surrounding the river will be a national park—the areas where the vast majority of the climbing is located—while an expansive 65,165 acres of neighboring land will be a National Preserve, to allow for backcountry hunting.
National park status is the gold standard of land protection in the United States. There will be no new mineral extraction sites, and it could help water advocates fight for a cleaner river. It will also increase funding to help develop more robust facilities, more parking, and improved trail maintenance.
This should also ensure the continued protection of climbing for generations to come. Since climbing has been grandfathered into the area, it is not likely that limitations will be added, such as permits for climbing or development.
In recent years, state and federal governments have begun to recognize climbing as a legitimate use of public lands, as well as a key component of local economies surrounding climbing destinations. This is reflected in legislation. In February 2019, Congress passed the Natural Resources Management Act, which included specific verbiage protecting rock climbing and the use of fixed anchors in the San Rafael Swell. In August 2020, the Bureau of Land Management canceled a plan to auction 85,000 acres of public land around Moab to oil and gas companies after more than 5,000 climbers petitioned them to call off the auction.
The biggest concern for climbers with the New’s national park designation is increased visitation. It is estimated that tourism to the area will increase by 20%. However, the impact of the crowds will likely be quelled with more parking areas and better trail maintenance. On the flip side of that coin, the 20% increase in tourism also means a 20% increase in the outdoor recreation economy, which is currently a $9 billion industry in West Virginia, a state that has been transitioning out of an economic dependency on coal. Not to mention that more people falling in love with these places is never a bad thing.